By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Board of Education on Monday unanimously approved the appointment of former House Speaker Richard Corcoran as the next state education commissioner.
Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes attorney who served as a Republican House speaker from 2016 until last month, will succeed Pam Stewart, a veteran educator who has led the Department of Education since 2013. Stewart will step down on Jan. 8.
The appointment of Corcoran, who has scant education experience but a lengthy political resume, was all but assured when Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis announced his support for the former lawmaker. As speaker, Corcoran made a top priority of expanding charter schools and using voucher-like programs to send students to private schools.
“Richard will be a bold leader committed to the success of students, parents, and teachers,” DeSantis said in a congratulatory tweet on Monday.
Corcoran has clashed with the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union. In part, he backed a law that will force local teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent in the collective-bargaining process.
Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said he was “disappointed” in the state board’s decision but is hoping for a more “collaborative” relationship with Corcoran. The union has invited Corcoran to visit schools to see successful programs, which Corcoran said he would like to do.
“If you don’t bring all stakeholders to the table, then our children are in the balance,” Ingram said.
Ingram said teachers want Corcoran to address issues like the amount of testing students face, class sizes and the need to recruit and retain teachers.
“The fact that he is not an educator doesn’t mean he can’t do the job. But he’s got some learning to do,” Ingram said.
Corcoran said he is a strong supporter of traditional public schools as well as being an advocate for “choice” programs like charter schools and vouchers.
He said his initial agenda as commissioner would mirror policies outlined by DeSantis in this year’s gubernatorial campaign. The priorities include the expansion of vocational and technical programs, curriculum improvements, revising education standards and making sure 80 percent of education funding is spent in classrooms.
“Those are bold, optimistic visions on (the governor’s) part. I share it,” Corcoran said.
He said the expansion of alternative education programs, such as charter schools and vouchers, would also be part of his and the new governor’s agenda.
“I think that wherever we can expand choice, as Gov. DeSantis has said, and it’s forensically proven to be an uplifting, tremendous outcome for the children, we’ll say it today. We’ll say it tomorrow. We’ll say it forever,” Corcoran said. “The whole focus is on giving every single child the opportunity at a world-class education. They deserve no less.”
Under questioning from board members, Corcoran explained his relationship to the charter school movement.
His six children attend a charter school in Pasco County that focuses on a “classical” education, including Latin, Greek, rhetoric and logic classes. His wife, Anne, who is an attorney, helped found the school. But he said neither he nor his wife have any financial interest in the school.
His brother, Michael, is a lobbyist for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.
Most of the testimony during Monday’s meeting at the Capitol was in support of Corcoran’s appointment.
But Catherine Baer of Common Ground, an education advocacy group, urged the board to conduct a national search before making a decision on the new commissioner.
She also said the expansion of charter schools, which serve about 10 percent of Florida’s 2.8 million K-12 students, has created “a parallel” education system that is not helping the neediest students.
Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Corcoran’s appointment, said a national search was not necessary, noting similar searches resulted in hiring two commissioners who each lasted a year or less before Stewart was hired in 2013.
Wilson said outgoing Gov. Rick Scott was “right” about hiring Stewart, and DeSantis is “absolutely right” in recommending Corcoran’s appointment.
The details of Corcoran’s start date and his salary will be worked out in negotiations with Marva Johnson, chairwoman of the Board of Education. Stewart is being paid $276,000 a year.
—- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.